DAV Professional Placment Group
DAV Professional Placment Group


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JOHANNESBURG +27 11 217 0000
CAPE TOWN +27 21 468 7000

Why Leadership Development Programmes Fail


Why Leadership Development Programmes Fail January 2016 - Judy Hofer


Company’s monetary investment on leadership programmes and leadership development is listed by the vast majority of organisations as a top priority. However, the act of training even a high potential does not guarantee they emerge as a leader capable of courageous and visionary leadership. So what makes development programmes fail?

Beyond the pragmatic, there’s perhaps something fundamental at the root of the problem. Mike Myatt, leadership myth-buster and contributor on Forbes, says it is primarily because we mistakenly believe the term training and the term development to be interchangeable. This small but critical distinction is lost on most companies, he claims. He lists 20 essential differences between the two:

  1. Training blends to a norm – Development occurs beyond the norm.
  2. Training focuses on technique/content/curriculum – Development focuses on people.
  3. Training tests patience – Development tests courage.
  4. Training focuses on the present – Development focuses on the future.
  5. Training adheres to standards – Development focuses on maximizing potential.
  6. Training is transactional – Development is transformational.
  7. Training focuses on maintenance – Development focuses on growth.
  8. Training focuses on the role – Development focuses on the person.
  9. Training indoctrinates – Development educates.
  10. Training maintains status quo – Development catalyzes innovation.
  11. Training stifles culture – Development enriches culture.
  12. Training encourages compliance – Development emphasizes performance.
  13. Training focuses on efficiency – Development focuses on effectiveness.
  14. Training focuses on problems – Development focuses on solutions.
  15. Training focuses on reporting lines – Development expands influence.
  16. Training places people in a box – Development frees them from the box.
  17. Training is mechanical – Development is intellectual.
  18. Training focuses on the knowns – Development explores the unknowns.
  19. Training places people in a comfort zone – Development moves people beyond their comfort zones.
  20. Training is finite – Development is infinite.

Peter Bregman, writing for Harvard Business Review says there is a massive difference between what we know about leadership and what we do as leaders. Every person deemed a leader has read innumerable books on leadership, taken leadership skills assessments, and attended multiple training programmes; including executive leadership programmes at top business schools. But somehow they fail to lead. He believes what makes leadership hard isn’t the theoretical, it’s the practical. It’s not about knowing what to say or do. It’s about whether you’re willing to experience the discomfort, risk, and uncertainty of actually saying or doing it.

It’s about emotional courage: which means being prepared to stand apart from others without separating yourself from them. It means speaking up when others are silent. And remaining steadfast, grounded, and measured in the face of uncertainty. It means responding productively to political opposition without getting sidetracked, distracted, or losing your focus. It is staying in the discomfort of a colleague’s anger without shutting off or becoming defensive.

Perhaps not something that can be easily taught? His recommendation is two-fold.

Integrate leadership development into the work itself. You can’t just learn about courage and communication, you have to be put into situations that demand that you do it, in the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, and your emotions are high; and

Teach leadership in a way that requires emotional courage. Most leadership programmes strive to create a safe environment for people to learn. At best, they teach about courage. They articulate why it’s important, what it looks like, how it plays out in a case study. Maybe they do a simulation. But that’s a mistake.

The only way to teach courage is to require it of people. To offer them opportunities to draw from the courage they already have. To give them opportunities to step into real situations they find uncomfortable and truly take the time to connect with the sensations that come with that.

McKinsey tells us there are 4 common mistakes made in the implementation of leadership development:

Overlooking context. A brilliant leader in one situation does not necessarily perform well in another. Too many training initiatives rest on the assumption that one size fits all and that the same group of skills or style of leadership is appropriate regardless of strategy, organisational culture, or CEO mandate. Focusing on context means equipping leaders with a small number of competencies (two to three) that will make a significant difference to performance instead of a long list of leadership standards, a complex web of dozens of competencies, and corporate-values statements.

Decoupling reflection from real work. Companies should strive to make every major business project a leadership-development opportunity as well, and to integrate leadership-development components into the projects themselves.

Underestimating mind-set. Becoming a more effective leader often requires changing behaviour. Identifying some of the deepest, “below the surface” thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and beliefs is usually a pre-condition of behavioural change; one too often shirked in development programmes.

Failing to measure results. When businesses fail to track and measure changes in leadership performance over time, they increase the odds that improvement initiatives won’t be taken seriously. One approach is to assess the extent of behavioural change, perhaps through a 360-degree feedback exercise at the beginning of a programme and followed by another one after 6 to 12 months. Another approach is to monitor participants’ career development after the training. Finally, try to monitor the business impact, especially when training is tied to breakthrough projects.

If you have any questions or if we can help in any way, please get in touch.


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